This summer I discovered the writer Elena Ferrante—in my summer garden, over morning coffee. The perfect way to greet the day when all is fresh and clear, including the mind. Ferrante and coffee—coffee brewed in a frustratingly complicated expresso machine that happens to deliver a sublime demicup of coffee so delicious it’s gone all too soon—like Ferrante’s tantalizing pieces in Incidental Inventions.
The book is a compilation of one-page essays written for The Guardian over the space of a year. The year was 2018—a simpler time, or if not simpler, a holding pattern before the new millennium and the maelstrom of the present century. Simplicity is Ferrante’s strong suit. Elena Ferrante has been named as one of the greatest writers of our times, one who can write about anything with unflinching candor. She has an ability to get to the heart of the matter in a very few words, which makes reading the one-page essays both a pleasure and an astonishment.
Her first piece is, fittingly, about First’s—first love, first time seeing the sea, first airplane ride, first intoxication. After making an honest effort to extract First experiences, she found the exercise “wanting.” “[Firsts are] swallowed up by all the times that follow," she says, "by their transformation into habit, and yet we attribute to them the power of the unrepeatable,”
She goes on to consider the process of becoming that is inherent in beginnings. Beginnings are the start of experience, and experience becomes the process of transformation. It made me think of two things. The first was a comment by a friend, who, after reading some of my early writing, said to me: I don’t think I would have liked you had I known you as a younger woman. The piece he read was about a casual affair and the quandary of passion gone cold—I can’t even remember the name of the story but perhaps it was a little shallow. I was a surprised by his comment but hoped it implied that I had improved with age, deepened, become more subtle, complex or thoughtful.
The second was a question posed to me during a card game: what is your greatest change in the last decade? When I couldn’t answer the question, I was asked another: what was your best decade? Hardly easier. I flipped off an answer: "the current one, of course." But in all seriousness: who we are, who we were, who we will become are soul-searching questions, far more thought-provoking than beginnings.
Ferrante said in her closing to the essay that “What we were in the beginning is only a patch of colour contemplated from the edge of what we become.” The “edge of becoming” is appropriate, coming from Ferrante because no one knows who she is: Elena Ferrante is a nom de plume. The mystery of her identity has been disputed for decades.
As I look back on beginnings, I wonder if I have become more settled, more reflective, less shallow with age. Or have I only become more pensive, more wistful—considering what has passed, and cannot be recaptured (energy, passion, innocence).
The truth is, when we are within ourselves, in our present state, we don’t consider who we will become. Perhaps we are like Russian dolls, selves within selves, in ever-condensed order. Do we ever become our essence? Or, as we age, do we carelessly shuck away what we think of as the useless shell? A lifeless skin that itches, a hollow chafing. It is good and necessary to contemplate beginnings from the edge of what we become—the edge, because the center may yet be revealed.
The lesson in this is not to become too attached to ourselves. We will change. Not necessarily diminish (though some reduction is as inescapable as time), but hopefully be enriched, as we move toward truer self.
Judith Wright is a Canadian writer interested in ordinary wisdom, that is, insight gained through everyday experience that is shared with the wider world.